When Leaders Change

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(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Joshua R. M. Dewberry. Public domain photo, cleared for release.)

During my four years of active duty in the Air Force, I attended a number of change of command ceremonies. They can be pretty impressive affairs, with all the troops lined up, flags from each squadron or wing under the command, and medals gleaming on the chests of the officers up front.

In the midst of all the pomp and circumstance, though, the official transfer of leadership is quite simple, only eight words: “Sir [or Ma’am, as in this photo] I relinquish command. … Sir [or Ma’am], I assume command.”

God led a change of command ceremony, once, too, and probably with no less pomp than the Air Force. After the people of Israel had been led out of slavery in Egypt, and after they had spent forty years wandering in the wilderness because of their sin of disbelief, it was time for leadership to pass from Moses to Joshua. What God said to Joshua during that ceremony—and what the people said to him—give us a clue about how to be successful as a church.

When I became pastor of The Journey Church in Sonora, California, I used this “change of command ceremony,” described in Joshua 1, as the text for my initial message. Here’s the basic message:

Whatever success in the church may mean—more people, more resources, more impact in the community and the world—success in God’s church demands three things: believe God’s promises, obey God’s Word, and follow God’s leader.

Believe God’s Promises. When Joshua took over, the Israelites were on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, looking west toward Canaan, “the promised land.” Centuries before, God had promised that land to Abraham. Forty years earlier, they had stood in the same place; but in the first failure of a church committee, by a vote of 10-2, they had decided to let fear reign instead of faith. As a result, they wandered in the wilderness until that entire generation had died. Now, on the edge of hope once again, they heard God repeat his promise: “I will never leave you [Joshua] nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” God promised a place and his presence; all they had to do was believe.

Obey God’s Word. We don’t much like the word obey; it’s too strong, too authoritarian. And besides, if you’re a Protestant (protest-ant) like me, you prefer to speak of grace. We need grace. We live by grace. We’re saved by grace – grace alone (solo gratia, in Martin Luther’s Latin vernacular). But grace—or our misconception of it—gets us in trouble, because we can tend to allow ourselves too much freedom, and then we slip into sin. But hey, more sin, more grace, right? Paul had a strong response to that attitude: NO! No, no, no; a thousand times no! (See Romans 6:1.) But God told Joshua to make sure he obeyed all the commands, and we have to keep that in mind, too. And the whole Bible commands obedience: Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Deuteronomy 32:46-47, Matthew 28:20, John 14:15, John 15:10, etc. Jesus makes obedience easier when he boils down all the commands in Scripture to two things: Love God and love people (Matthew 22:40).

Follow God’s Leader. This is where it got tricky as a pastor: challenging a church to follow me as God’s leader. But I reminded them of their unanimous vote a couple months earlier that said, in effect, what the Israelites told Joshua: “Whatever you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you.” Of course, I’m sure that made Joshua a bit nervous, because he’d been around for a while and had seen how they’d obeyed Moses – with grumbling, complaining, and a whole lot of sin. He’d also heard what God had said about the people not too much earlier: “[T]hese people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.” (Deuteronomy 31:16)

None of this is necessarily easy. God sometimes delays his promises (check out Hebrews 11:13). Though he has promised never to leave us, sometimes he seems distant, silent, unresponsive (check out any number of the Psalms, or most of the book of Job). And his Word isn’t always easy to obey, or we can’t agree on what obedience looks like. And so often, our leaders say or do stupid things, offensive things, or we just don’t like them! But God never promised an easy life, an easy faith. It takes work, it takes patience, it takes humility.

In that first message, I reminded the church that God still promises his presence. I promised that I would keep his Word central to everything we do. And then I challenged them to respond in three ways:

  • First, to “examine the Scriptures” daily (see Acts 17:11) to see if I’m on track. I want my church to be in their Bibles regularly, consistently, and in community, because I believe that the Bible is best understood in community. I need them to know God’s Word.
  • Second, I want them to pray for me – especially if they have a problem with something I’ve said or done. One of the best ways you can follow your pastor—God’s leader—is to pray for him or her. It helps the pastor and it keeps you humble!
  • Finally, I asked them to encourage me, as the people of Israel encouraged Joshua: “be strong and courageous!” Any kind of leadership is hard; pastoring is especially so. We feel the weight of responsibility, and the role can both stroke our egos and tear away at our hearts. I’m my own worst critic, so I need encouragement: notes, kind words, a text, an email.

BELIEVE – OBEY – FOLLOW: God’s prescription for success.

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